When does a 59-35 loss represent a positive direction?
According to Lakewood Ranch High boys basketball Head Coach Chris Kawcak, it does when it comes against a state semifinalist from a year ago, and when it marks a vast improvement over the previous game.
That it doesn't count in the official standings also helps soften the blow.
The Mustangs went through some rough moments Nov. 17, in that loss to Wharton High in a home preseason game. Wharton went 28-3 last year and reached the Final Four. Kawcak wasn't thrilled with the final result, but he was pleased with the progress his team had made. Two days earlier, the Mustangs lost 80-53 at home to Sumner High, a district opponent that went 17-9 a season ago.
"We had 30 turnovers in that first game," Kawcak said. "I don't know exactly how many we had tonight, but I know it was less than 30. We're a young team and it's going to take some time."
Not only are the Mustangs inexperienced, with nine of their players being sophomores or freshmen, but they come from a mix of places. Only sophomore Deven Womack, a 6-foot-2 guard, senior Isaac Ashley, a 6-foot-4 forward, and senior Trey Holweger, a 6-foot wing, return from last year's varsity roster. Everyone else either was promoted from the junior varsity roster or came into the program via transfer.
Coming off a 14-11 season that ended in the team's district tournament, the Mustangs are hoping for more in 2022-2023, but the team's best efforts will likely come in the second half of the season as the team comes together.
Kawcak said he expects Womack to be one of the team's leading scorers thanks to his athletic ability. As far as everyone else, Kawcak said his offense promotes spreading the ball around to whoever is open. Kawcak said he is also excited about sophomore Dudache Belony, a 6-foot-2 guard, who did not play against Wharton due to injury.
Obviously, the Mustangs need to improve offensively, but Kawcak is putting the emphasis on defense.
"We need to have a defensive intensity," Kawcak said. "The rest will come. We're going to be good. These games were a good challenge. We're just still learning."
The Mustangs' first regular season game is at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 28 against Parrish Community, while their first home game is at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29 against North Port.
Here's a look at all the other basketball programs in the East County area.
The Lakewood Ranch girls program is coming off an 11-12 season under Coach Frank Bell, one where the Mustangs reached the district semifinals before losing 69-49 to Durant High. The Mustangs lost their top-three scorers from last season — Hannah Pruszinske, Rachel Meadows and Kaylee Kehler — to graduation. So Lakewood Ranch will need more scoring from senior Sara Leonardis (5.8 points per game last year) and junior Elainna Villegas (4.8 points per game). Through two games as of Nov. 17, the results have been mixed. Lakewood Ranch lost 46-30 to Palmetto High on Nov. 14 but beat Manatee High 57-14, both games were on the road.
With a new head coach in Dwight Gilmer, formerly the coach at Bayshore High, the Braden River High boys team hopes to improve on its 7-18 season from last year. Two reasons the Pirates might improve are junior guards Marcus Schade and Isaac Heaven. The 6-foot-2 Schade led the team with 12.1 points per game and was second with 4.9 rebounds per game as a sophomore. The 6-foot-3 Heaven was second with 9.1 points per game and led the Pirates with 5.5 rebounds per game. Schade and Heaven averaged 15 and 16 points per game respectively during summer ball. The guards' development as juniors is the team's biggest key.
The Braden River girls team also has a new coach in Scott Woolam, who was previously an assistant coach at Fort Myers High. Last season, the Pirates couldn't quite reach the heights they did with star guard O'Mariah Gordon, now a sophomore at Florida State, but they still went 14-11 and reached the Class 6A regional semifinals, where they lost 60-37 to eventual Final Four team Bloomingdale High. The Pirates lost most of their offensive production from a season ago. Back is senior guard Monique Schwalbach, who averaged 6.7 points per game. Schwalbach scored 18 points in the team's first game of 2022-2023, but Braden River lost 40-31 to St. Petersburg High at home Nov. 14.
The Out-of-Door Academy boys team went 7-16 a year ago and lost leading scorers Kevin O'Donoghue (16.1 points per game), who transferred to Cardinal Mooney High, and Henry Ye (15.9 points per game), who transferred to Lemon Bay High. No one returning scored more than Zach Fox's 1.9 points per game. But the team's roster does include 6-foot freshman Allen Clark, whose athleticism on the football field in the fall was impressive.
The ODA girls team went 9-6 last season but lost 61-32 to Saint Stephen's Episcopal in the first round of its district tournament. ODA will be paced by senior Kennedy Garrett, the daughter of Head Coach Tim Garrett, who averaged 9.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.